I am not the best person to go to with questions about the future of Twitter. The reason you shouldn’t ask me, as I will tell anyone who inquires whether I think $7.99 a month is a fair price to keep my cherished blue tick, is that I am utterly, inexcusably addicted to it.
I know that this is not something to be proud of. I know that endless studies have demonstrated the link between heavy social media use and poor mental health. I know it was a toxic cesspit of abuse and fake news and petty feuds that spiral way out of control long before Elon Musk first got the perverse notion of turning it into his personal playground.
But I can’t help it. Twitter may be undeniably awful – but it is also wonderful. And if rumours of its imminent demise turn out not to have been greatly exaggerated, I will miss it more than I can say.
For a start, it’s integral to my job. It’s not the ability of journalists to promote articles (you can do that on any social network – just look at the state of LinkedIn), but rather what comes first: the fever-pitch of gossip trading, the buzz of breaking news (we knew Liz Truss was resigning long before the non-Twitterati did), and the seamless way the platform connects you to other people talking about what you’re talking about. Facebook is for sharing baby photos with your relatives, Instagram is for showing off your heavily filtered holiday snaps, and TikTok is for those who are seemingly immune to motion sickness. Only on Twitter can you fire off a random thought about the state of the housing market or the political significance of restricting protest and instantly find yourself engaging with property experts, former government ministers and the person who literally wrote the book on activism and civil liberties. It’s like a magic spell, the Room of Requirement from Harry Potter but for real-time debate.
Limitless potential for connection has its downsides, of course. Poke the wrong dialectic bear and the abuse comes thick and fast. So too do the death and rape threats, especially for women and other marginalised communities. I don’t want to underplay how traumatic the pile-ons can be or minimise the hate and bile that those hiding behind derivative pseudonyms feel entitled to dole out. There is so much more that Twitter could do to make the platform safer and cultivate genuinely free speech (not the “shut up and let me say whatever I want” version) without the risk of ordinary users being chased away by vile trolls for the crime of having an opinion.
But for those who make good use of the block and mute buttons and choose to stay, the sheer serendipity has always been breathtaking. I’ve received job offers off the back of tweets that went viral. I’ve made not only professional contacts but real friends. I often say that I met my husband on Twitter – neither of us can quite remember whether we first met in person before or after we got into a three-day discussion on how perceptions of post-Brexit border control were far more important than actual immigration numbers, but what’s certain is that Twitter was where we learned how much we had in common. If it hadn’t existed, who knows if we’d be married now.
I have insights into the lives of people across the world I’ll probably never meet. I know the names of their cats; I’m excited by their successes. Twitter has a dark side, no doubt, but it also engenders a particular type of warmth and community that feels far more like the old internet – the world of fanblogs and message forums that I grew up with as a child of the millennium – than the stale graveyards of Facebook and LinkedIn. It also has a propensity for surrealism that is unmatched by its rivals. One of its key personalities is an endearingly stupid ginger cat who advocates for workers’ rights. And yes, there are some odd types on there – a shout-out to the guy who pretended to be a PR for a hosiery company to send me tights (no he was not, yes I kept the tights) – but the rest of the experience makes it worth it.
So why am I baulking at the prospect of paying $8 a month for this thing I love so much? Leaving aside the many issues with impersonation and the risk of fake news from freshly “verified” accounts, I realised as Musk was tweeting his way to self-destruction this weekend that it’s not about the money, but what it gets you. Twitter’s new commander-in-chief has made clear that paying users will get priority ranking. “You’ll have to scroll far to see the unverified users,” in his own words. I could pay for my tweets to be displayed at the top, but that would mean nothing if the people I wanted to interact with didn’t. Journalists might hand over their credit card details and politicians might get verification for free, but what about the random academics, civil servants, scientists, data analysts and artists? What about everyone for whom Twitter is not an obsession or a career, but who are nonetheless the people who make it worth something? If they don’t pay (and honestly, why would they), what’s the point in me being there?
I don’t think Twitter will die – it’s too useful to too many high-profile individuals and companies. I suspect Musk will get bored of his new toy, or else investors will quietly force him to take a step back if the exodus continues. I hope so, anyway. Musk might not understand the value of what he’s bought, but that doesn’t mean that value doesn’t exist. I don’t know what I’ll do if everyone I love to follow moves platforms or gets lost beneath the wave of verified prioritisation. I’ll miss them – I want to stay in touch with their cats.